Pictured above: Île Saint-Louis
With planning and construction underway for Paris to host the Summer Olympics 2024 (July 26-August 11), you can be sure the city will look its best. Spring is a perfect time to enjoy Paris before the event crowds arrive in July. Here’s a visit we took a few years ago to the “City of Light” to whet your appetite.
It was practically a spur-of-the-moment decision for us. Rick and I always plan months ahead for a trip. But we were only four weeks out this time when we decided to make a pond crossing for an extra-long late-May weekend trip to Paris to celebrate our twentieth anniversary together.
We booked our flights using points on credit cards and rented an Airbnb apartment. Arriving at Charles De Gaulle Airport in the morning, we purchased four days of train and Métro tickets, plus museum passes, a time saver for avoiding long lines at ticketed sites. We bought no souvenirs, ate in cafes and bistros, rode the subway, and walked our way across Paris, managing to spend surprisingly little money. And nature’s gift? Good weather followed us everywhere.
Wanting only the CliffsNotes version of our anniversary trip, a friend asked me later what the number one attraction was for us.
“It’s Paris!” I told him.
What DOESN’T Paris offer? The city hosts grand structures of every architectural period, from venerable Notre Dame Cathedral’s French Gothic style to the twenty-first century’s contemporary style at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. Hundreds of gracious and manicured parks and gardens relieve blocks of handsome medieval to nineteenth century houses throughout the city, while beautiful, classic churches in every neighborhood spike the sky with their towers.
Monuments to Paris’ glory litter the cityscape. The Eiffel Tower may be the world’s most recognized monument, while Arc de Triomphe, a Revolutionary War Memorial, sits at the end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées Boulevard where twelve streets meet. And whether a visitor strolls this broad, elegant thoroughfare window-shopping high fashion stores or plies the narrow, curving lanes of Le Marais to poke into shops selling an array of everyday items and tasty treats, street walking brings all the city’s offerings to you.
Then there is that sense of sophisticated, urbane living. Parisians seem to wear it well—naturally, seamlessly. They can be congenial, passionate, yet dismissive. Okay, I suppose I might be a bit smug if my address began with “Rue.” The language, the personal mannerisms and French sense of style are so seductive, so en pointe. They make the attitude parisienne look effortless.
Counting “un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq,” here’s how we celebrated in glorious Paris.
Un (One) Paris neighborhood that offers it all
Le Marais offers the quintessential Paris experience.
Our fourth-floor walk-up apartment perched on top of an eighteenth century building on Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie in the heart of Le Marais, our favorite neighborhood. It straddles the third and fourth arrondissements (districts).
Characterized by attractive four- and five-story rows of buildings, Le Marais was once the city’s Jewish Quarter. A block or so of shops and purveyors of services that cater to a Jewish clientele still exists––kosher butchers, challah and bread makers, creperies, and street food vendors.
These days it has the feel of a village within the city—narrow curving streets and lanes lined with trendy shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes, side by side with residential apartment buildings and boutique hotels. Le Marais is also the epicenter of Parisian gay culture. It’s a neighborhood where everyone mixes well and enjoys the relaxed pace.
Le Marais is quintessential “cafe society.” Every morning we headed to Cafe Carrefour on Rue Archives. Patrons spend the morning, as we did, sipping espresso and eating croissants and smoking cigarettes (which we did not); and in the afternoon, they sample petites assiettes (small plates of food), sipping wine and other potables…and smoking cigarettes.
Nearby, two islands stand in the middle of the Seine connected to both banks by bridges––Île de la Cite, home of Notre Dame Cathedral, and Île Saint-Louis, an attractive residential neighborhood of shops and restaurants. Both are minutes walking from Le Marais, which made our location central to enjoying many of Paris’ delights.
Deux (Two) museums for cultural and artistic indulgence
Musée d’Orsay is one of my very favorite museums anywhere. Situated along the left bank of the Seine in central Paris and housed in the spectacular former Beaux Arts era Gare d’Orsay (train station), the museum contains the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, sculptures, and furniture.
Rooms upon rooms of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin, Serat, Degas, and many other masters of the period contain dozens of pieces we’ve all seen in print or on screen. So much artistic brilliance in one place! One special exhibition, “The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky,” staged in very subdued setting, displayed a wonderland of paintings that all possessed the magical quality of having a light from within, as if sunlight or moonlight emanated from the canvas.
Louis Vuitton Foundation
We rode Paris Métro Line 1 to the northwestern part of the city to visit the Louis Vuitton Foundation. The 10-minute walk from the station to the Bois de Boulogne Parc introduced us to the museum’s spectacular glass structure, designed by Frank Gehry to look like a boat with its sails inflated by the wind. Water flows from a wide set of black marble steps to a pool on which the building pretends to float. Inside galleries fill three floors and a roof deck.
We were fortunate to experience a dynamic, exciting exhibition, “Art/Afrique—Le Novel Atelier.” The Foundation’s revolving exhibits feature international artists whose work falls into four categories: Contemplative, Pop, Expressionist, and Music and Sound, according to their website.
Trois (Three) parks made for lingering
Luxembourg Gardens, a 57-acre garden spreading from the Luxembourg Palace near the Seine, with its sweeping lawns, tree groves, and promenades, invited us to linger, first on a park bench, then on the inviting grass. The garden is a popular gathering place for residents, tourists, schoolchildren, and sunbathers. A circular water basin attracts children and adults who captain model sailboats. We came across a performance in the bandshell by Podium Paris, the city’s gay men’s chorus. They sang and danced for an enthusiastic crowd of all ages sitting on lawn chairs.
Champs de Mars Parc
The 7th arrondissement is perhaps Paris’ most charming and visited neighborhood. It’s home to major tourist attractions––Eiffel Tower, Hôtel des Invalides, Musées d’Orsay and Rodin––as well as government and international diplomatic offices and one of Paris’ most affluent neighborhoods. Walk this beautiful neighborhood to experience impressive and monumental architecture, along with beautifully landscaped private mansions.
Stretching southeast of the Tower, the grand Champs de Mars Parc provides a stunning view of the Tower and a people-watching place to hang out. And we did, for a few hours. As a concert of Michael Jackson music filled the air from a few blocks away, we lay on the lawn amidst hundreds of mostly young people engaged in picnicking, studying, sunbathing and necking. Overhead, a series of adventurous souls ziplined from the Eiffel Tower several hundred yards to a landing platform at the Military School at the Parc’s southern end.
If you go to this area, don’t miss Rue Cler, where local Parisians shop daily at the food and flower stalls in the early morning, then stay for lunch in one of the many cafes that line the street.
Place de Vosges
Tucked away on the edge of our own Le Marais neighborhood, the quintessentially peaceful and classic Place de Vosges is landscaped elegance. Four bisected quadrants make up the five-acre green space, with small groves of lime and chestnut trees. Surrounding the square, first opened in 1605, are four handsome rows of identical red brick and stone buildings, except for the taller and more embellished King and Queen mansions on opposite sides. We took our cue from the dozens of mostly student-aged people lying on the beckoning lawn and claimed some turf for ourselves.
Quatre (Four) delectable food destinations in Paris
Our Francophile friends in Philadelphia sent us off to Paris with a list of bistros to try. We scored a grand slam of dining experiences, traveling on foot or by Métro to these restaurants around the city. Our 9:00 p.m. reservations were early for Parisian bistros, though most restaurants were mostly empty until the locals strolled in later.
One night we dined on Basque cuisine with its northern Spanish influence at Au Bascou in the 11th arr. Sitting at a window seat, we relished a savory veal stew and their special Royal Hare.
Origins14-La Régalade, located in the 14th arr., is well loved for its “farmhouse kitchen cooking.” I remember the smoked lamb carpaccio satisfying my taste buds, followed by one of the creamiest rice puddings this aficionado has enjoyed.
Astier, our favorite, was also in the 11th arr., a lively classic bistro with red-checkered tablecloths, a friendly owner/waiter, great service, enticing ambience, and scrumptious plates from the kitchen. After classically French steak au poive and a cod fish filet, we feasted on an outstanding cheese board that our friends strongly recommended. Heaven on earth!
For a local eatery a few blocks from our apartment, Hanoi Restaurant served tasty classic French-influenced Vietnamese dishes in a lively setting.
Of course, we ordered a bottle of wine with every dinner, and waiter recommendations proved consistently good. Prices for dinner and wine? Not very different from our center city Philadelphia restaurants, as we were surprised to discover.
Cinq (Five) fabulous days in the “City of Light”
Altogether, Paris is a cornucopia of sensual experiences that stimulate all the senses. We saw so much at a relatively liesurely pace over a very long weekend. Wear good walking shoes, buy a Paris Visite travel pass, practice a few common phrases, and enjoy this city’s delights. It’s not too late to plan your Spring Fling.
If You Go
- Getting There:
- Direct flights from 21 U.S. cities, as of January 2024 to Charles de Gaulle airport, Europe’s third busiest. 10 flights daily from NYC. United recently added direct flights from Phoenix.
- Getting Around:
- Métro – sprawling subway system covering most of Paris. 2.10 euros ($2.28) per ride, as well on buses and in-city RER. Operates 6:00 am-12:45 pm, I hour later on weekends
- Bus – extensive system throughout
- RER – five-line express train system, underground within city limits, above ground in suburbs
- Vélib – extensive and popular bike-sharing system. Four Vélib passes are designated for visitors. Learn more
- Recommended for Visitors:
- Paris Visite travel pass allows you to use all of the public transport networks from one to five days: the metro, tramway, bus, RER and SNCF Transilien (French railway system) networks. Learn more
- Navago Travel Pass for longer stays. One week and one month passes available on reloadable card.